By Ridge Mahoney
How did the USA survive the Group of Death? Along with gutty performances and big plays at critical moments, here are a few factors that proved vital.
HOORAY FOR HOWARD.Goalkeeping is always a critical factor in a World Cup, and of the four keepers in Group G, Tim Howard earned top marks. In a major competition, teams need a keeper who handle the routine stuff and also be capable of the occasional big save to atone for an error, and Howard filled the bill despite conceding four goals.
Portugal’s first-choice keeper, Rui Patricio, missed the tournament with an injury, and with a back line depleted by injuries and the suspension of Pepe, the Portuguese never looked settled in the back. That’s not solely the fault of Beto, of course, yet it’s fair to say if Portugal had Howard in the nets there’s no way it would have conceded seven goals in the first round. Howard destroys chances by smothering through balls and snagging balls in the air, which Ghanaian keeper Fatau Daudawasn’t able to do at a critical moment against Portugal.
With the score tied, 1-1, and Ghana capable of reaching the knockout round by winning, 2-1, Dauda clumsily swatted a dropping ball right to Cristiano Ronaldo, whose rifled shot into the bottom corner effectively ended Ghana’s participation in the tournament. Both Ghanaian keepers -- Norwegian-bred Adam Kwarasey played against the USA -- are examples of keepers who are talented and athletic yet simply too erratic to be trusted.
Howard was especially sharp coming off his line against Portugal as the Americans recovered from conceding an early, ugly goal that put them behind. And he may have saved, literally, American chances to advance by swatting away a shot from Ederwith his left hand while falling to his right. That shot, late in the first half with Portugal leading, 1-0, resulted from Howard’s whiff on a fierce shot by Nani, which rebounded off the post to Eder. Still, Howard had the opportunity to salvage the situation and did so in spectacular fashion. Keepers usually bail out their teammates but just as valuable is one who can cover for himself.
Germany’s solid play greatly limited the opportunities for opponents to test keeper Manuel Neuerand he’ll need to be sharp as the opposition gets tougher and stakes get higher in the knockout rounds. Jurgen Klinsmann’s proclamation that Howard is one of the top five keepers in the world is vintage hyperbole -- you’d get a stiff argument that he’s barely in the Premier League top five -- but all that matters is that his coaches and teammates are utterly confident in his abilities and so far at the World Cup he’s taken care of business.
MIDFIELD MARATHONERS.The good news is that Michael Bradley ran farther than any other player at the World Cup in the group stage -- let alone any midfielder in Group G. The bad news is that all that running produced enough good and bad moments to grade out pretty close to mediocre.
Covering a log of ground, while laudable in many respects, may indicate mere effort and not efficiency. During the three group games, the USA found itself in these differing scenarios: it scored in the first minute against Ghana, it fell behind Portugal in the early minutes, and played about 50 minutes tied 0-0 before Germany scored the only goal of the game.
A team that consistently falls behind will probably have to run more than the opponent to catch up, which is what the term “chasing the game” literally applies to. A team adept at keeping the ball, whether or not it has the lead, can use collective movement and range to spread out its players and force opponents to cover large areas and run considerable distances as it tries to win back possession and then launch its own attacks.
Bradley’s work totals of 12.7 km (against Ghana), 12.2 km (Portugal), and 13.1 km (Germany) add up to more than 38,000 meters, or about 23.7 miles. Central midfield partners Jermaine Jonesand Kyle Beckerman ran less, more than 1,000 fewer meters per game on average, yet still outran most of the men they opposed. Of the Group G opponents only Germany’s Phillip Lahm (11.7 km) and Toni Kroos (11.1 km) and Ghana’s Sulley Muntari(11.4 km) ran more than 11,000 meters.
Jones and Beckerman played cleaner, crisper games than did Bradley, but they were assigned smaller zones of the field to cover as Bradley tried to do his share defensively while also prompting the attack. It’s a large burden to bear in a World Cup and Klinsmann may tweak the roles and assignments against Belgium to spread out the workload while still using his players’ ability to their maximums. A heavy workload and intense pre-World Cup training may be taking their toll on Bradley, who underwent a procedure in late April to deal with a nerve problem in his foot.
The FIFA tracking statistics go into deeper detail, such as the time spent in the opponent’s half and whether the player’s activity level was low, medium or high. It’s a measure of the team’s commitment that so many of its players put in such high levels of running, yet it can also indicate sloppy play, since poor touches and stray passes often lead to turnovers, and teams without the ball are obligated to run it down.
JOKERS WILD.For decades, German soccer has used the term "joker" to describe a substitute who comes off the bench to score a goal. Klinsmann didn’t bring on defenderJohn Brooks solely for that purpose against Ghana, but after replacing Matt Besler at halftime, Brooks provided a fairy-tale finish by heading a corner kick from another sub, Graham Zusi, into the net for the winner.
Nearly all of Klinsmann’s in-game moves have paid off, though deploying Omar Gonzalez in midfield rather than adding him to the back line proved costly when Portugal subSilvestre Varelafound space to head Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross for a last-gasp equalizer. Portugal needed that goal because sub DeAndre Yedlin, used off the bench at right mid to add energy and some attacking zip, got to the byline and cut back a ball that Zusi centered and Clint Dempseydirected into the net off his abdomen for a 2-1 U.S. lead.
Gonzalez retained the centerback spot against Germany, which used a halftime sub by head coach Joachim Loewto turn the tables against the USA. Miroslav Klose didn’t score what would be a record 16th World Cup goal yet he caused enough problems in the U.S. back line that Thomas Mueller latched onto a rebound to score the game’s only goal. Alejandro Bedoyaand Yedlin came off the bench again but seldom bothered the confident Germans.
After leaving the first game with a hamstring injury, forward Jozy Altidore has not played but he’s working to get fit for the round of 16 game against Belgium. One of Klinsmann’s key decisions will be whether he can risk Altidore as a starter, or use him as a joker if needed.